“I’ve always wanted to go to India, for the yoga and spirituality.”
At some point early 2019 on a structurally suspicious looking boat cutting through choppy waves of the Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, during the hottest hour of the day. I’m perched on the bow of the boat not even strapped in or even using a life vest. During the short twenty-minute journey from Panajachel to San Marcos, I strike a conversation with a young nomad-hippy-cosmopolitan type. The type of person that just travels, you name it, he’s been there. I almost envied his lifestyle. After the normal introductions of who we were, where we’ve been and where from, he confessed that he always wanted to go to India for the yoga. I politely noted that there’s much more to the subcontinent then what is essentially stretching with extra steps. We laughed, and the conversation moved on. After we parted I couldn’t help but wonder why Europeans and North Americans have this type exotic perspective on the East, because this conversation isn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last. The concept in question is ‘The Orient’.
‘The Orient’ is a European invention which is distinguished between the Orient (The ‘Other or the East) and the Occident (the West – originally Britain and France, but now includes Europe and rise of neo-colonialism). This defines the East and West as binary opposites in terms of history, culture and politics. The Orient was crafted to conflict the pure and sophisticated image of the Occident. It’s worth noting at this point that colonialism and the Empire didn’t just occupy and subjugated the Orient but, more importantly, sought to control its identity, history, culture, landscape and voice. The images of the colonist discourse were foreign to the realities of the East. The manufacturing of the Orient by the west propagated the notion that the East was and is fundamentally opposite to the Occident. This Eurocentric ideology propagated division and segregated cultures by representing them ultimately for their own gains – divide and conquer.
The Eurocentric interest over the Orient eventually gained control over the geographical and cultural landscapes which constructed and perpetuated notions of European superiority and marginalised the colonial subject’s voice. This ‘Western gaze’ subjectifies and objectifies what it sees in itself from its coloured lens and its own position power. As Edward Said notes in Orientalism (1978), ‘The main thing for a European Visitor was a European Representation of the Orient.’ Orientalism views the Orient through its own interest through an imperial lens, projecting the east as more of a commodity rather than having its own independent social matrix. The Western gaze systematically objectifies the orient in forms of its character, from governance to development, from academic study to culture, religion and identity formation.
So how does it impact the image of the East today? Discourse from film, television and literature that exhibit representations of the East influence ignorance and stereotypes, whilst also reaffirming colonial and Imperial attitudes of the West. The Eurocentric exploitation of the West treats culture as a commodity to be bought and sold like fast fashion. This capitalisation of culture reduces the validity, richness and diversity to essence distilled of synthetic ingredients. Producing an exotic and fetishized flavour far from the fruit – just like strawberry laces don’t taste anything like strawberries.
I’d like to make a point that there is nothing wrong with wanting to go somewhere to experience a culture or lifestyle that you admire, in fact I encourage it. The concern here is the exploitation of local and indigenous communities sourced from post-colonial attitudes has a negative impact on communities who are trying to determine their identities.
Burney, Shehla. “CHAPTER ONE: Orientalism: The Making of the Other.” Counterpoints 417 (2012): 23-39. Accessed January 11, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42981698.
By Gauranga Varia